Connecting the dots
It was not until I started reading From Speech to Print by Dr. Louisa Moats that I was able to fully make the connection between speech problems, reading, and dyslexia. Language is the crucial, underlying skill required for reading. If there is a breakdown anywhere in the processing of language, reading will be impacted. And this is when I started to understand the connection between speech/language problems and reading.
Unlike most teachers, speech language pathologists are trained to work with those who have a breakdown in the processing of language. Their training is much more than just correcting articulation problems, it also encompasses many concepts including expressive and receptive language, syntax, semantics, grammar, and the identification of where the breakdown in language processing is occurring. They are trained to be both diagnostic and prescriptive. And their training is agonizingly (well for me) detailed in not only the phonemes of the English language, but also in the movements required by the mouth to make these phonemes and the effects that the surrounding phonemes exert on and alter the phonemes by them.
This understanding of phonemes is the key to cracking the code of learning how to read because the deficit in phonological processing is the most common cause of reading difficulties in dyslexia. People with dyslexia do not have an ear for the sounds of speech and sometimes need to be taught explicitly how to distinguish between the phonemes. For example, there are phonemes that are produced in the same place in the mouth, but one is voiced while the other is unvoiced. These phonemes are: b/p, d/t, g/k, v/f, z/s, th (this)/th (thistle), sh/zh, j/ch (as in chop). If a student cannot perceive the differences in these sounds, but recognizes these sounds are produced in the same place in the mouth, the student may interchangeably use the grapheme associated with either the voiced phoneme or the unvoiced phoneme. A teacher that is trained in structured literacy will pick up on this clue from the student’s spelling and will diagnostically and prescriptively adjust the lesson. If the student is confusing the graphemes v and f, the teacher will acknowledge to the student that while these phonemes are produced in the same place in the mouth, the teacher will explain the difference by having the student touch his/her voice box while saying /v/ and feeling the vibration and then having the student say /f/ and the lack of vibration. The targeted practice will continue to ensure that this concept is understood so the rest of the lesson can continue. This is what is meant by diagnostic and prescriptive and unfortunately many teachers of reading do not have this depth of knowledge about the structure of language.
Another common cause of spelling errors is the phonological overlap caused by co-articulation that Louisa Moats explains in (painstaking) detail in the book From Speech to Print. There were exercises for the reader to analyze common spelling errors. As I was reading this, I could not help but think that this is the type of information speech language therapists are trained in, and that this information would be extremely helpful to teachers in explaining why certain spelling errors are made. Two examples that were given of misspelled words were jrs and chrane. Because the mouth is rounding in anticipation of pronouncing /r/, some students perceive a different sound in the preceding phoneme. The correctly spelled words should have been dress and train, but that is not what the student perceived. The /r/ also has a huge impact on vowels that precede it, and in structured literacy this is taught as a separate syllable type, the r-controlled syllable. Vowels, by the way, are among the hardest for people with dyslexia to identify and to distinguish between, and this is one of the reasons why dyslexia becomes more apparent when analyzing the patterns of errors and difficulties.
Speech language pathologists can also help those individuals whose dyslexia is not primarily caused by a deficit in phonological processing. My younger son also received speech therapy starting at the age of 3 like his brother. Unlike his brother, who primarily had articulation problems, my younger son’s problems stemmed not only from an expressive language disorder, but he was also a slow processor. When he was about 2.5 years old, I became concerned that he had a hearing problem because whenever I said anything to him, he frequently responded “what?” He had his hearing tested several times, but everything checked out ok. Around this same time, he was starting to talk more, but he was typically very vague. It was not uncommon for him to say things like “I want what I had tomorrow” in response to me asking what he wanted for breakfast. When he was evaluated, the speech language pathologist explained that because he was a slow processor, he needed extra time to process what was said and to process his response. She said not to repeat myself assuming that he didn’t hear me, because it would interfere with his processing. She also explained that he had problems with word retrieval. The speech language pathologist worked with him on correctly labeling items and also on direction words. In hindsight, she was trying to organize his mental filing cabinet for words.
He also struggled with learning to read, but not to the same degree as my older son, as he seemed to intuitively understand the alphabetic principle, but his comprehension was just not there. My older son, even though he could not decode words, somehow got the gist of what he was reading, while my younger son seemed to be able to decode most words, but he could not answer questions about what he had just read. The combination of being a slow processor along with problems in rapid automatic naming impacted my younger son’s ability to comprehend what he was reading. As Dr. Paula Tallal succinctly described in her testimony for the Science, Space, and Technology Committee Hearing on September 30, 2015 for the READ Act,
children with language-based learning problems are operating on the equivalent of dial-up speed, while good language and reading skills require a child to operate on the equivalent of high-speed internet.” (approximately the 1:33:40 – 1:35:00 minute marks)
For me, the journey to understanding what dyslexia is and the required intervention has been a long process in connecting the dots. I don’t have a background in education or speech/language development. I had a very narrow understanding of the role of speech language pathologists in that their primary focus was correcting articulation problems. I thought dyslexia was a problem with seeing letters backwards, and this myth is what led me to learn more about dyslexia because this was the one symptom that I recognized in my older son: letter reversals.
I have come to the conclusion that language disorders run in my family. Both of my children started speech therapy by the age of 3, as have 4 out of 6 of my nieces and nephews. My siblings have the advantage that I have been through this process of connecting the dots and I try to explain how their children’s patterns of errors and difficulties in language may impact their ability in learning to read. Not only do parents need someone to connect the dots of how underlying problems in language can impact reading, but teachers need this information as well to better understand their struggling readers in order to better meet their needs.
- Part 1: Dyslexia Defined
- Part 2: Highlights of Recent Research
- Part 3: A Different Approach to Learning Language
- Longer excerpt from Dr. Tallal’s testimony
- Language Disorders in Children: Essentials Parents Should Know
- Is it Language Disorder or Learning Disability? A Tutorial for Parents and Professionals
- Language Disorders Are Learning Disabilities: Challenges on the Divergent and Diverse Paths to Language Learning Disability